Rotten ropes, ramshackle gallows, inexperienced executioner - Sri Lanka 's prison system prepares for a return to capital punishment
Sat December 4, 2004 21:11 EST .
DILIP GANGULY - Associated Press Writer - COLOMBO, Sri Lanka - (AP) The country's 25-year-old executioner has no experience. The hanging ropes have rotted and the bolts on the gallows have rusted. While no one had been executed in Sri Lanka - since 1976, courts have continued to issue the death penalty.
But on Nov. 21, High Court Judge Sarath Ambepitiya a jurist known for his tough verdicts against gangsters and drug dealers was gunned down with his bodyguard. The next day, President Chandrika Kumaratunga announced she was lifting the moratorium on the death penalty.
Today, there are 49 condemned prisoners whose clemency appeals have been rejected. There are 152 others who have been sentenced to death, but whose appeals are pending.
The island's history of executions goes back to when Sri Lanka - was the British colony known as Ceylon. The first hanging was held Feb. 11, 1884, at Welikada Prison, and the last was June 23, 1976, nearly 20 years after Sri Lanka - achieved independence. Over that time, a total of 1,868 men and women were executed.
The sudden change in policy came with a sharp rise in crime on this island of 19 million people. A civil war now largely calmed by a cease-fire has torn at the country since 1983, killing some 65,000 people and resulting in thousands of military desertions.
``Right now we have 30,000 deserters,'' said Rienzie Perera, the police spokesman. ``This is one of the main reasons for the crime chart to rise,'' he said. The war has also made it easy for criminals to buy weapons, from the smallest pistol to the largest machine gun.
It's unclear how popular the decision to lift the moratorium is in Sri Lanka - , but residents are certainly frustrated with spiraling crime rates.
``What is important is that the government has finally realized that the death penalty should be given and executed in countries like our,'' said Hemantha Warnakulasuriya, deputy president of the Sri Lanka - Bar Association and a criminal defense lawyer. He had few concerns about how the prison system appeared ill-prepared to actually carry out an execution, saying ``Those matters can be tackled.''
But not everyone was pleased with the sudden change.
``It is a knee-jerk reaction'' to the judge's killing, said Rohan Ederesinghe, who heads the Center for Policy Alternative, a good governance organization.
For prison officials, the quick shift means they can't even find proper hanging rope.
India has been approached to sell some of the specially made cord, as has China, but the deal is so small that prison authorities here are still waiting for replies.
``Nothing has come of it yet,'' Mazrook said.
And at the two prisons where there are gallows, there is no one experienced to do the job.
Wijetunge, who works in the 160-year-old British-built Welikada, has the title of executioner, but he got the job in 2000 when his father who never performed an execution either retired from the position.
But despite all the problems, Marzook insists the prison system will be ready when the time comes.
``When I get the order to go ahead, I will ensure that all systems are go.''
Published: Sun Dec 5 01:04:41 EST 2004